Forget China’s spy balloon; military UFO incidents are far more intriguing
Marik von Rennenkampff, Opinion Contributor
A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon’s meandering, days-long overflight of the United States ignited a media frenzy. But the Pentagon, secretly aware of China’s global spy balloon effort thanks to a new focus on UFOs, quickly deemed the balloon harmless. According to officials, the airship did not pose a significant intelligence risk, offering Beijing only “limited additive value” beyond the data it collects from satellites.
For one, the balloon’s lumbering pace allowed U.S. officials to protect against the collection of sensitive information. Moreover, according to a U.S. official, “we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.” Military and intelligence agencies may also have fed the balloon false information, rendering any data it collected worthless.
Of course, an analysis of the balloon’s wreckage may ultimately shed more light on its capabilities. But for now, the Great Hullaballoon of 2023 appears to be more diplomatic brinksmanship than intelligence coup.
Far more intriguing – and deserving of the intense media scrutiny afforded China’s ill-fated balloon – are U.S. military encounters with mysterious flying objects exhibiting seemingly extraordinary technology.
Take, for example, the 2004 “Tic Tac” incident, which continues to perplex the U.S. government. Over the course of several days, a Navy warship’s state-of-the-art radar tracked mysterious targets descending from high altitudes at extreme velocities. Controllers ultimately directed two fighter jets to intercept one of the perplexing radar contacts.
Just above an area of roiling whitewater amid an otherwise calm sea, four naval aviators observed a strange object with no wings, control surfaces or means of propulsion maneuvering in jaw-dropping ways. The mysterious craft then darted off at extraordinary speeds shortly after a Top Gun-trained squadron commander chased it. The apparent physics- and aerodynamics-defying performance left the stunned aircrew believing that the object “was not from this world.”
A follow-on flight captured a “Tic Tac”-shaped craft on video. Applying basic math, UFO sleuths convincingly rule out prosaic explanations – such as a distant jet – for the mysterious object seen in the video.
Moreover, infrared footage of the craft, in conjunction with a simple, garage-style experiment that accounts for the position of the sun, make a robust case that the “Tic Tac” object appeared precisely as described by the four aviators who observed it visually.
This begs an obvious question: How does an object with no wings or apparent means of propulsion fly at tens of thousands of feet, let alone accelerate instantaneously to hypersonic velocities?
Beyond a brief segment on CBS News’s “60 Minutes” and a smattering of coverage in mainstream outlets, the media remains strikingly silent on the apparent physics-defying capabilities of the “Tic Tac” object. But if everyday citizens, utilizing basic trigonometry and simple experiments, can verify aviators’ descriptions of the mysterious craft, where is the grounded, objective media analysis that such an extraordinary incident demands?
Moreover, in August 2022, an ex-fighter pilot with nearly four decades of flight experience reported an alarming incident in the same area as the 2004 encounter. Despite striking similarities with the “Tic Tac” incident, the 2022 encounter garnered only paltry journalistic attention.
The media frenzy catalyzed by China’s suspected surveillance balloon stands in stark contrast to news outlets’ predilection for glossing over incredible reports by credible observers.
In 2014 and 2015, for example, at least 50 to 60 naval aviators flying off the U.S. East Coast observed unknown craft exhibiting extraordinary capabilities on a daily basis.
Of critical importance, these highly anomalous encounters appear wholly separate from three alarming instances of suspected Chinese spy balloons violating U.S. airspace during the Trump administration. Conflating the two is disingenuous. Indeed, China’s vast balloon surveillance program appears to have commenced around 2018, well after the strange incidents off the East Coast.
Beyond an ability to remain stationary in high winds or fly at considerable speeds for extreme durations (distinctly un-balloon-like behavior) the mysterious craft observed daily by aviators in 2014 and 2015 were frequently invisible to the naked eye. While radar and various infrared heat sensors indicated the presence of real, physical objects, aviators who investigated the strange contacts – often with the assistance of advanced helmet displays – rarely saw them visually. In one documented instance off the coast of Virginia, four naval aviators flew within 200 feet of a mysterious object tracked simultaneously by radar and infrared sensors. Yet they saw nothing visually.
If, for the sake of argument, an adversarial foreign power developed and deployed technology rendering its surveillance platforms invisible in early 2014, the media’s lack of interest or investigative reporting amounts to a staggering journalistic failing.
Why, for example, have reporters not hammered successive Pentagon press secretaries with questions about the seemingly invisible objects encountered frequently by highly trained aircrews? Could this journalistic reticence be rooted in a lack of knowledge of the incidents? Perhaps the stigma and “giggle factor” long associated with UFOs are to blame. (Of course, if an adversarial power like China possessed “cloaking” technology, it would have no need to sail a giant, lumbering balloon over the United States.)
In another noteworthy 2014 incident off the coast of Virginia, two objects with heat and radar signatures hovered at altitudes of 12,000 and 15,000 feet. Importantly, wind speeds at the time, location and altitudes of the incident ranged from 70 to 80 miles per hour. As aviators watched one of the strange objects hovering stationary in strong winds aloft, two other craft – both with heat signatures – flew by “at a high speed.” Such bizarre flight characteristics, of course, are not remotely balloon-like.
Ditto for the “GoFast” UFO video. Recorded by naval aviators off the coast of Florida in early 2015, two independent geometrical models of the video show that – if a key figure in the video is accurate – the object has intrinsic speed. In other words, the craft moved significantly faster than winds aloft at the time, location and altitude of the incident.
Since the “GoFast” object is small, with no wings or obvious means of propulsion, its intrinsic speed suggests highly advanced technology. Once again, the data do not suggest that the “GoFast” craft is a balloon.
Perhaps most importantly, meticulous three-dimensional reconstructions of the now-famous “Gimbal” UFO video confirm that the object demonstrated truly remarkable flight characteristics. With a “stable” radar lock, aviators have “high confidence” that the craft was within 10 miles of the jet that recorded the video. (The aircrew ultimately “flew right up to” the mysterious object.) At such close distances, it is clear that the craft – which slowed from a speed of several hundred knots to a stop in midair before abruptly reversing direction and accelerating again – has no wings or discernible means of propulsion.
The “Gimbal” object is definitively not a foreign spy balloon. But its extraordinary flight characteristics demand just as much attention as the Chinese surveillance balloon shot down in U.S. airspace. The same goes for over 300 military UFO reports – some quite jarring – that remain “unresolved.”
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.